Monday, July 14, 2008

Just a few random thoughts...

Chances are by now if you're a reader who frequents blogs in the kidlitosphere, you've stumbled across quite a few posts about summer reading lists. I have nothing terribly new or original to add to the discussion, but I thought I'd share some random thoughts about reading, about requirements, and about purpose.

Why summer reading? Is the point to encourage a lifelong love of reading? If it is, summer "required" reading lists are not the way to go. Why? Because requiring someone to do something--even if that something is "fun" or "pleasurable" in nature--takes the fun out of it. You cannot force someone to enjoy something. Requiring something means it's work. And it doesn't take a genius to figure out that once something becomes work, it loses its ability to be fun. Work is tedious. It's mundane. It's something to be endured.

I've been a lifelong reader. There was never a time I didn't love to read. You might think that this would mean that I would love to read anything and everything. Even if that something was required. You might think that I'd be the sort--since I loved reading--that would love summer reading lists. That I would be excited to be assigned books to read over the course of the summer to prepare for next year's English class. You'd be wrong. Way wrong.

It doesn't matter if you love to read or hate to read. There is a good chance that REQUIRED READING is a common enemy to both camps.

Does it matter what books are required? Perhaps. Classics might be slightly more tedious than modern fiction. But just because something is modern doesn't mean that kids will hate it any less. IF there has to be something required, I'd rather see modern YA literature assigned than a classic. But really the chances are so strong that it will be read begrudgingly that I don't know how much of a difference that makes.

I do know this. Historical fiction generally equals pure torture if it's assigned reading. For some reason, historical fiction seems to be less engaging, less compelling than realistic fiction for some readers. I'm not saying all readers. I personally LOVED historical fiction IF it was my idea to read it.

The point being that you can compile a list of the BEST books. Compelling, well-written, engaging, page-turning, powerful, beautiful, lyrical, wowiest of the wow books. But you can't make a group of readers enjoy the experience of reading any of those books.

If the point of summer reading is to make a child/teen love to read, then it's probably going to fail. If the point of summer reading is to test them come August/September, then you're going to get mixed results anyway. Sad to say but today's youth are likely to be ten times sneakier than previous generations. Though I suppose people have been "faking" their way through quizzes, tests, essays, and book reports probably since the first teacher assigned the first required book. Still, in today's world it is easier than ever. Cliff's Notes and other such aids have existed for decades and decades. But the Internet does make it easier to steal and lift ideas and information. So teachers should be on high-alert. Sure there will always be a few students who do the required work and genuinely participate. But still, it's supposedly easier to try to cheat, to try to fake your way through it. I hate--really really hate--that this is true.

If the point of summer reading is to educate a person, to give them an experience that will benefit them in the long-term, then I'm not sure how well that is working out either. Even if you do end up forcing them to read a book page by page by page, you can't force them to process that information and keep it. I can't begin to tell you the dozens of books I read in high school and middle school that went in and right back out again as soon as the test/quiz/essay was over. It was read it and forget it. I BLOCKED out at least half a dozen books. I couldn't begin to tell you about the books. Not even the names of the characters. Not even the main gist of the plot. I didn't register it as remotely important or significant. It didn't MATTER to me. It was a waste of my time and my energy.

It's not that I'm anti-literature. Far from it. I'm just being honest. In junior high and high school, I did not care about "literature" and "required reading." I didn't care about class discussions. I didn't care about book reports and analyzing anything. I didn't care one little bit to think about anything using higher critical thinking skills. In college, surprise surprise, I switched my major to English literature. I don't know who was more shocked, me or my family. I happily enrolled in class after class. Each class had lengthy requirements. But suddenly I cared. For the most part. I won't say I cared about each book, each class equally. Some I liked better than others. Some I loved. Some I hated. But I cared enough about all of them to stay enrolled, to stay involved, to stay active in discussions and assignments. I did get all A's.

But one of the most important things I learned was that everything--essays, papers, etc--should all be seeking to answer the question "So what?" If literature matters today, you have to show how and why. It helped that in 99% of my classes we were encouraged to think for ourselves and explore literature--what it means and why it matters and who should care, etc--and find our own answers.

If summer is about freedom, then required reading should not exist within its realm. Reading should abound, yes, but not required reading. I don't know how much "freedom of choice" it would take to make it not be seen as work. In other words, I don't know if assigning three or four books from ten or twenty or fifty books would make a difference. It might make some difference. But with more choices come greater work if there are going to be quizzes and discussions and such at the start of the school year.

There are no easy answers. There really aren't. As adults and especially as adults who love to read, we get so caught up in wanting to share "our wisdom" that we forget what it was like to be a kid, a teen. Literature classes have to teach something. Books, stories, plays, poetry have to be assigned at one point or another. And grades and assignments have to be a part of it. Not a fun part, but a part. I just wish there was a different way.

How are readers made? There are two components to reading. The skills and the ability to read. The process of reading. Of interpreting letters and words and comprehending meaning. And there is the component of pleasure. You can teach one, but the other isn't as magically transferable. Having parents who read helps. Having access to books help. (Either owning books or having weekly or monthly library visits.) Reading aloud helps. But one of the most important things isn't all that predictable. It seems to me that what "switches" a person on to reading is the magical connection between a reader and a book. Often times it is one book, one author, one series that can often flip the "switch" in someone's thinking that makes reading be associated with fun, with pleasure, with satisfaction. Something has to occur in a person's life that makes them say, "Hey, this is fun. I want to do it again." For some it might be reading Harry Potter or the Babysitter's Club or Captain Underpants or Junie B. Jones or Ramona. It might be finding a book like Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. The difficult thing is that no one can predict which book will be *the book* that does the trick.

For me, I'm all about trying to connect books with readers. I know that every book has the potential to be someone's favorite book. It might not be *the* magical book. I'm not trying to say that that is my goal in particular. But there are thousands of books--good books--that might just make someone's day. Books that will be enjoyable, pleasurable to others. Reading is so subjective, so personal. There isn't a list of *magical* books that are so amazingly perfect that you can guarantee each and every reader will love them, cherish them, appreciate them. Just because you love a book doesn't mean another reader will. That's why list-making can be so tricky. That's why required reading is so tricky. Required books typically are required because they have depth and substance and layers. Because they have something important to say. But important or not, you can't make people "get" the books and read with open hearts and minds.

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Confuzzled Shannon said...

I feel the same about about reading list. I love reading and always have but as soon as the teacher assigned something to read, which were usually classics, I always couldn't get through them and to this day I kinda myself away from stuff like Tom Sawyer and To Kill Mockingbird. Anytime I look at these books I cringe.

Unknown said...

Nicely put! My daughter was assigned several books as required reading for this fall's honors English and even though she is an avid reader, she's having trouble getting through the list.

However, I've already read everything on her list and thoroughly enjoyed most of them - but they weren't required reading for me.

Susan said...

You know, I've noticed that if I "assign" myself books to read for a challenge, they become almost instantly unappealing. I don't think it's because of the books themselves, it's just that I'm now "required" to read them. So, yeah, I get what you're saying about required reading lists.

BTW: You should check out my post about whether bookworms are created through nature or nurture. I'd be interested in your opinion.

Megan said...

I, too, fall into that camp of "always have been a reader, always will be reader" and I always loathed required summer reading. For under three months every year I could have the freedom to read what *I* wanted to instead of what my teachers were assigning, and it always irritated me to have my reading mandated even through the summer. There are a select few summer reading books that I did read and really enjoyed and am really glad that I was made to read (because I probably wouldn't have read them otherwise) but for the most part summer reading was just an exercise in torture (my *favorite* addition to this exercise was the reading journal patented just to lengthen the awfulness while simultaneously interrupting the "experience" of the book) made worse by my own procrastination. Great post - there's definitely quite a quandary present in the whole summer reading thing, and I think you nailed it. We definitely need to start thinking about ways that will make kids *want* to read instead of just forcing reading upon them.

Anonymous said...

Great post Becky! I totally agree and thank my lucky stars that I was able to go through my entire school education without required summer reading lists. Maybe I'm behind the times but I didn't even realize that they were doing these until a couple of months ago. The thought makes me cringe!

Unknown said...

Great post, Becky! I'm a lifelong reader who hasn't read most of the "classics" because I was told to do it! And I love historical fiction, too! As a middle school teacher, I have been trying to get rid of "the list" for years. At least our list has more than 25 books and they are asked to read any 2 of their choice. But still...

Kim said...

I so agree with you Becky. My 16 year old son is in Honors classes and the summer assigned reading books in the past have been horrifically boring, dark and gloomy. They could pick one off the list, but none of them last summer was even remotely inspiring. They then had to complete a diadactical journal before school started and come the first day of school ready to write an in class essay. YUCK!
I have always expected my boys to read in the summer, and I would give them lists to pick off of--(back when I home-schooled) and I did pick books that were fun and light-hearted along with some shorter classics-they also got to mix it up a lot with choices totally picked by them and there certainly were no assignments given!

This year, my son's honors classes didn't even bother with the reading list/ summer reading requirements. I think they finally realized most of the kids either didn't do it, cheated, or found a way to wing it!

Happy Reading--

Mo said...

yes, "back in the day" we didn't HAVE required summer reading, but I completely agree with your assessment that making a book "required", most likely gives it a negative connotation to anyone who is assigned to read it!

...Altho, I must say that had I NOT been "forced" to read "Beowulf", it would not be one of my all-time favorite stories, still today. I was introduced to alot of good books through high school because I was "required" to read them...

I don't know...but, I definately enjoyed reading your post - lots of food for thought.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post! So that's what summer reading lists are all about. It's not something we practise in my country, Malaysia. I wonder if it's related to the absence of a reading culture.

Then again, there are voracious readers here in China and I don't think they have a "required reading list" either.

I agree, though, that having parents who read helps a lot. And yes, having access to books. That's why I've started a blog reviewing all the books I've read as a child and when I taught English.

I hope that my country folk would find the reviews useful if they are in search of a good read either for themselves or for their children!

Anonymous said...

Thank's for the great article. :)

You might like to check out Bayard's range of children's books.

In this month's issues StoryBox has Helen Oxenbury guest illustrating, DiscoveryBox has an Olympics Special and there are also some great Rainy Day Activities!

My kids seem to really be getting on with them well.

Thanks again for the great article!

Kimberly/lectitans said...

I know I'm late to this conversation, but I wanted to put in a couple words. My summer reading post, back when I did it, was a compilation of suggestions for reading - not required reading. Ideas for parents or others to say to a kid, "Hey! You might like this." Nothing more. I've been lucky that some of my required summer reading has been of books I would have loved anyway. I agree with you, however, that required = unpleasant, regardless of how good the book is or is not.